One of our Best of the Month selections in Mystery, Thriller & Suspense was published this week, and we have an exchange between the author and her husband (he's also an author). Kelly Braffet's new thriller Save Yourself has been getting some great reviews. Dennis Lehane called it an "electrifying, tomahawk missile of a thriller"—and Salon.com's Laura Miller says, "The tension Braffet generates becomes nearly unbearable, and the conclusion, when it comes, feels satisfying and thoroughly earned."
In this interview, Owen and Kelly
email back and forth from separate rooms of the same house to discuss
OWEN KING: Save Yourself has three perspectives,
and I suspect that the first of those perspectives, Patrick Cusimano’s, is
going to be the subject of fascination and argument for lots of readers.
Patrick works the zombie shift at a convenience store; his father is in prison
for a drunk driving accident that caused the death of a child; he’s
simultaneously attracted to his brother’s girlfriend and a girl in high school;
and he has aggressively awful taste in music. But one of the great magic tricks
of the novel is that he is so damned likeable! How did you pull that off? Where
did Patrick come from?
“Aggressively awful”? Have you never heard The
Dark Side of the Moon? I love you, life partner, but I am shaking my head
sadly at you. That’s right: sadly.
Anyway: I’m glad you find Patrick
likeable. I always have. He’s a smart guy who grew up in a family where being
smart wasn’t particularly valued, so he ends up leading a
not-particularly-smart life. When we meet him, he’s just starting to realize
that. Which I think we generally find sympathetic: we don’t necessarily love
losers, but we love losers who try to turn their lives around. He hasn’t turned
things around yet; at the beginning of the book he still has many, many more
terrible decisions to make, but he’s at least realized, in large part because
of his father’s accident, that the road he’s traveling isn’t going anywhere.
The question is whether or not he can switch directions. He has no idea where
to start, even.
Also, Patrick isn’t a callous
person. He’s genuinely horrified by and ashamed of what his father has done. I
tried to show that as soon as I could, so that readers knew out of the gate how
damaged and vulnerable he was. It’s fair to accuse Patrick of making abysmally
bad decisions, but I don’t think anyone could argue that he’s without a conscience.
OWEN KING: The other two perspectives in the novel belong to
Verna, the younger sister of Layla, the teenager that Patrick finds himself
involved with, and Caro, the girlfriend of Patrick’s not wholly unappealing,
but somewhat stolid, older brother Mike. The result is a narrative that is
built with remarkable intricacy and sympathy. The way these people fit together
is continuously surprising and often very moving. I know that you started with
Patrick. Did the shape of the story suggest the other perspectives, or did the
other perspectives suggest the shape of the story?
My initial idea was to put Patrick, who doesn’t believe in anything, into
conflict with a girl from a family where belief is central. That turned out to
be Layla, but as the story developed, it started to feel like telling the story
from Layla’s point of view gave too much away. So I pulled back to her little
sister. And the more I wrote, the more I realized that Caro needed a few
chapters of her own, for the opposite reason: if she never had a chance to tell
her story, if we don’t know her history and how she feels about the life she’s
drifted into, then it’s hard to understand why any man in the book would find
her compelling. If readers were going to buy Patrick’s friendship with Layla,
some things had to remain hidden. If they were going to buy his friendship with
Caro, some things had to be explained.
I will say that, throughout the
book, it was a challenge to find ways to make sure that the reader knew enough,
particularly with Layla, who lives quite a bit of her life outside the
narration of the story. Anything we end up knowing about that life, we know
because she tells either Patrick or Verna, and creating situations where that
telling seemed natural was a little tricky. She’s not a person who spills her
guts every five minutes.
OWEN KING: I’m glad you brought up the issue of belief in
the novel. Layla and Verna Elshere’s parents have built quite the cottage
industry selling “purity rings” to teenage girls, and they have raised a fair
amount of—ahem—hell in their community about the public school biology
curriculum. To an unapologetically secular progressive like yours truly, this
is pretty loaded stuff. How did you approach the subject? Did your own beliefs
change at all during the writing of Save
My original idea with the home church was to go completely beyond the pale:
snake-handling, strychnine, the whole signs-and-wonders hog. But the more
research I did, the clearer it became that it would be more interesting, and
more compelling, to make him [Jeff Elshere] an ordinary person who really does
think he’s doing what’s best for his daughters and for the world at large. When
I was writing him, I didn’t necessarily want to create a character that
evangelical readers would see themselves in, but I did want him to at least seem
familiar. And I hope that all of my readers find him at least a little
sympathetic, even if they disagree with ninety percent of what he believes.
As for my own personal beliefs—my
parents aren’t particularly religious people, but it’s inarguable that I grew
up in a Christianity-infused world. When I was a kid, I knew about God and
Jesus and so forth, but they sort of lived on the same mental shelf as Santa
Claus and the Easter Bunny, because they granted wishes. (Although, since
neither God nor Jesus ever brought me candy, they lived in the dark, dusty
corner part of said shelf.) As an adult, I’m firmly agnostic. Which I’ve been
told is impossible, to be firmly agnostic.
But as part of my research for this book, I read Karen Armstrong’s The Case for God, where she wrote—I’m
paraphrasing—that if there is Something Out There, it’s nothing our puny little
human brains can comprehend. That resonated with me, and it’s kind of where
I do think, though, that I’ve come
away from this with a greater respect and—oh, yeah, I’m going to go there, I’m
going to use the T word—tolerance for
Christianity at large. From where I stand, personally and politically, it’s too
easy to lump Christians into one big, screamy, sign-carrying mass, and the true
picture is both broader and deeper than that. One of my favorite bloggers, John
Shore, is Christian, and he’s also one of the funniest, most thoughtful people
I’ve ever read. His wisdom has nothing to do with his Christianity, but his
Christianity informs his wisdom. This is sort of a bumper-sticker thing to say,
but it’s too easy in today’s world not to look beyond the labels, and we need
OWEN KING: So, this last one is a little bit awkward, but .
. . Ah . . . I've enjoyed this conversation so much and I love your novel . . .
Would you be interested in, um, I don't know, getting coffee, or going bike
riding or something? I mean, like, meeting outside of Amazon?
We’re out of coffee. I used the last of it this morning. Sorry.
Kelly Braffet is the author of Save Yourself: A Novel
(Crown Publishing, 2013). Owen King is the author of Double Feature: A Novel
(Scribner, 2013). They are both currently involved in many other projects,
including but not limited to: Kelly
And Owen Are Married: A Novel; Whose
Turn Is It To Load The Dishwasher: A One-Act Play; and Will You Please Pick Up Cat Food On
Your Way Home: A Rock Opera.